K7 Media

K7 Media

How drama is defining scheduling for UK broadcasters

The return to normal after the Christmas break is a jolt for everyone, and the same is true for TV schedules. January programming requires something of a re-boot for viewers whose regular viewing habits have been disrupted by the holidays.

In the UK, four of the five terrestrial networks turned to drama to ease viewers back into normal viewing patterns. Only Five opted for an unscripted solution, finding its drama through Celebrity Big Brother.

Two of the dramas on the other four networks have been much anticipated, while others are already familiar to viewers. For ITV hopes were high that Broadchurch’s much anticipated second series would repeat the success of its first series. However, it has so far disappointed in terms of viewing numbers, struggling to compete with BBC One’s Silent Witness, which is now in its 18th season.

Such are the perils of following up a “water cooler” hit. While Silent Witness has a procedural format that lends itself to ongoing viewing, the self-contained narrative of an event series like Broadchurch can make audiences wary of follow-ups.

BBC1 dramas highlight how important older viewers have become for ensuring success with new drama series.

Meanwhile, Tudor period drama Wolf Hall was the other hotly tipped January drama, especially for the broadsheet newspapers. Though technically a new series for TV, it still draws on an established property: the hugely successful novel of the same name by Hilary Mantel.

The series, detailing the rise of Thomas Cromwell through the court of Henry VIII, was a big deal for BBC2 and, as one of the few nights of the week when BBC One does not have a 9pm drama, Wolf Hall’s Wednesday evening berth offered it a unique window of opportunity. It drew an audience of almost 4m viewers for its launch, making it one of BBC2’s biggest drama debuts, but wilted by 1m in week two with 2.9m for 12.5% share.

The preponderance of BBC1 drama at 9pm inevitably results in competition with ITV’s dramas. On Sunday BBC One’s Last Tango in Halifax faces Mr Selfridge on ITV, with the benefit of inheriting the audience of 8pm blockbuster Call the Midwife.  These BBC1 dramas highlight how important older viewers have become for ensuring success with new drama series.

Call the Midwife might be said to set the gold standard for a BBC One audience, as it is particularly popular with the over 55s. 48% of the 9.4m audience falls into that demographic.  For Last Tango In Halifax, over half of its 6.3m viewers are aged over 65 years, while almost 70 percent of Wolf Hall’s audience are over 55 years old.

The use of drama for strategic impact in BBC2’s January schedules found some similarities in Channel 4’s launch of a new January drama, and just as BBC2 depended on the proven success of the novel, so Channel 4 also turned to proven talent for its drama Cucumber.

Channel 4 reunited with Russell T Davies whose drama Cucumber returned to the theme of Queer as Folk, his 1990s breakthrough drama for the channel.  Its initial ratings were below 1m on a night when BBC1’s 9pm Death in Paradise took 6.5m. The second week saw Cucumber fall to 661,000 for a 3% share.   However, for Channel 4, this not purely a ratings-driven commission. The drama is clearly delineating a point of editorial difference with rival networks, and with its companion shows – Banana on E4 and Tofu online – the aim is to underscore the common vision of Channel 4’s various network brands.

By now, if you have been keeping a count of the number of dramas at 9pm, you will have been struck by the sheer number of BBC shows – four on BBC One, one on BBC2. If you add Casualty on Saturday at 9.15pm, that’s six in just one week. If you also add in the two dramas at 8pm – Call the Midwife on Sunday and Holby City on Tuesday, leading into a second Silent Witness episode – that’s a total of six hours of primetime drama, making up 42% of the 8pm-10pm weekly schedule. Add in soaps on top of that, and the domination of scripted is unmistakable.

Drama producers talk about drama ‘brands’ – Last Tango and Call the Midwife being examples of brands which have established a high level of recognition with the audience relatively quickly.  Older shows, like Silent Witness, have longevity on their side in terms of audience awareness – likewise Midsomer Murders which started a new series last week.   Similarly a new drama like Wolf Hall is an established brand – successful novels, adapted for the stage, now a TV series.

The domination of scripted is unmistakable.

It could be that this legacy approach works particularly well with older viewers, which might explain why Channel 4 is finding it more difficult to reach younger audiences in substantial numbers.  It could be, however, that while younger audiences may be more resistant to accepting a returning drama as a brand, they latch onto newer formats through social media. Broadcast reports that eight of the top 10 most tweeted-about January TV shows were episodes of Five’s Celebrity Big Brother. Likewise a tabloid-friendly show like MTV’s Ex on the Beach generates an immediate response on social media according to Kantar’s Twitter TV Ratings leader board.

These different strategies – locking older viewers into established and familiar dramas by BBC One, BBC2 and ITV, or provoking Twitter reaction to reality shows – reveal how polarised along generational lines the audience can be. Now that the schedules have settled down following Christmas, it remains to be seen which of the networks will be able to bridge that gap in the long term.

Philip Reevell writes about broadcasting and media matters.

Philip Reevell